Boomtown San Diego
By Christopher Whitney
University of San Diego

In 1943, Catherine Bauer, a consultant for the Federal Housing Authority during World War II, stated, "one sixth of our (American) population are in a state of flux, physically and psychologically.  If you asked them where they expect to be five years from now, they shrug their shoulders."  Americans had always been restless, in search of fame or fortune.
The nineteenth century mining and railroad booms were proof of that.  So the exploitation of San Diego's naturally land-locked harbor and ideal climate were inevitable in time.  Although the nation's population had been shifting west for some time, World War II served to rapidly accelerate that shift because of the demand for labor in southwestern cities as we built our nation's defense.

Before World War II, San Diego was known as a quiet, residential community especially popular among retirees.  World War II, however, brought growth beyond anyone's expectations and, unfortunately, beyond contemporary municipal capabilities.  To a large extent, the social climate and landscape of today's San Diego can be traced directly to the defense buildup before and during World War II.

Mission Valley (Late 1800's)

5th Avenue in 1876

In 1915 and 1935, two international expositions drew nationwide attention to San Diego.  It's naturally land-locked harbor and ideal weather conditions were attractive, but despite great effort, San Diego failed to develop a strong industrial base.  The military, tourism, and real estate were the dominant portion of the city's tax base.

San Diego's relationship with the military dated back to the Spanish colonial settlement, when San Diego was founded as a frontier outpost. By the time Germany invaded Poland in late August, 1939, San Diego had already begun the huge military and industrial buildup that would support America's inevitable entrance into affairs overseas.   San Diego was transformed into a "teeming wartime metropolis."  National publications like Time called San Diego a "boom-town."

The San Diego portion of the western war boom was due in large part to Rueben H. Fleet.  In 1935, Fleet, the founder and president of Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, moved his company from Buffalo, New York to San Diego.  San Diego's ideal climate allowed for outdoor manufacture and perfect conditions for aeronautical testing.  When Consolidated's first plant was dedicated on October 20, 1935, it had 874 employees on 247,000 square feet of floor space.

German air superiority in Europe, however, evidenced the need to reassess the military's use of air power. General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, said (in response to the 1938 Munich Agreement), "the nation with the greatest navy in the world in . . . alliance with the nation having the most powerful army in the world . . . capitulated without a struggle to Germany's newly created air power." On January 12, 1939, President Roosevelt asked for additional appropriations and "a complete revision of our estimates for aircraft -- our existing forces are so utterly inadequate that they must be immediately strengthened."
Consolidated Aircraft submitted a design for the B-24 Liberator, a long  range bomber that met government specifications of 300 m.p.h., a 3000 mile range, and a 35,000 foot ceiling. The German invasion increased pressure to speed up airplane production and consequently, Consolidated received the first production orders for the B-24 before it had even been tested in the air. On December 29, 1939, less than a year after initiating the B-24 plan, the first bomber was tested above San Diego harbor.

B-24 Liberator


         PBY Catalina

  Consolidated and the Government had already had a long term 
  contract to build the PBY Catalina, an extremely reliable a 
  versatile aircraft used in both the Pacific and Atlantic theatres. 
  However, on December 18, 1939, Consolidated and the 
  Government entered into another agreement to build 200 more 
  PBY Catalinas for $20 million. In the Fall of 1940, Consolidated
  had nearly $230,000,000 worth of defense contracts. 



    On October 20, 1941, Consolidated's Plant Two was dedicated. By that time, Consolidated 
    had grown from 874 employees and 247,000 square feet of workspace in 1935 to 30,000 
    employees and 3,100,000 square feet. By 1943, 41,000 people were building airplanes for 
    Consolidated. Ultimately, Consolidated would build over 9000 B-24 bombers. The San Diego 
    plant produced 6,724 of them. This influx of defense manufacturing, however, would severely
    test San Diego's municipal capabilities. Even before Consolidated's vast expansion, the 
    company was already concerned about the lack of available housing for it's employees.


In the fall of 1940, the vacancy rate in San Diego was at 2%. The only housing available was too expensive for Fleet's employees. Defense Housing Coordinator Charles Palmer warned President Roosevelt on October 23, 1940, defense expansion in San Diego would lead to a population increase upwards of 100,000, only excaserbating San Diego's already critical housing shortage.

Marines training on beach in 1942

Military men were pouring into San Diego.  Edward Ortiz, a music teacher in the Linda Vista School District during World War II remembers a tale of some lost soldiers.  "The Federal Government sent over . . . 6 fighter planes stationed in San Diego.  It was a small number to repel any attack.  Then a National Guard Unit, which became part of the Army, was stationed down where Solar Manufacturing is (Pacific Highway).  They got lost.  The Government lost all the information about them and the men received no money.  Their plight became known so they appealed to the community and the community brought food so they could continue to live."

Military Presence in San Diego during World War II (Map)

The housing shortage threatened production schedules for Consolidated, and Fleet urged President Roosevelt for assistance. In September of 1940, the backlog of orders for Consolidated's B-24 Liberators and PBY Catalinas was larger than the assessed value of all of San Diego County. Fleet proposed that the military build housing for Consolidated's employees. He suggested 6000 units for married employees, and barracks for 6000 single employees. Roosevelt suggested that Fleet build new plants in Texas and Oklahoma to relieve the burden and increase production, but Fleet resisted, demanding to remain in San Diego.

At Fleet's urging, Roosevelt asked his Secretary of Treasury to assess the housing shortage in San Diego. Pursuant to his findings, on October 29, 1940, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau announced government plans to build housing for the workers of Consolidated Aircraft. Unfortunately, the growth of San Diego's industrial base and the influx of low-wage workers to San Diego was in direct conflict with powerful economic interests in San Diego. San Diego's business elite had long sought to use it's alliance with the military to gain federal assistance, but always on their own terms. Unfortunately, San Diego's elite were more concerned with maintaining real estate values than they were with housing the poor.

The United States Housing Act of 1937 created the United States Housing Authority (USHA) to develop federally subsidized low-income housing projects. Funds for housing were provided either by lending up to ninety percent of the initial costs of a project to local officials, or by directly subsidizing construction and maintenance costs. Individual cities had discretion about whether or not to have public housing.

In the face of this crisis, San Diego's business elite still resisted the acceptance of federal aid, even though only vast federal resources could possibly solve a problem of this magnitude. In an interview with the San Diego Historical Journal, Harry Haelsig, an Assistant Planning Director for the City of San Diego during World War II, remembers the public backlash city officials faced in proposing appropriations for development.  "I remember that we prepared and presented a program of $44 million for ten years of development.  They just about rode Glenn Rick (then San Diego City Planner) out of town!"

In January, 1940, the City Council Housing Committee was intrigued by an offer of $1,000,000 for low cost housing from USHA. In a special meeting held on January 26, 1940, the housing committee recommended establishment of a housing authority. But public backlash prevented implementation. The San Diego Union Tribune used the headline, "Socialist Tinge Charged by Foes of Housing program."

A public meeting was held where, not suprisingly, opposition came in the form of: the Building Contractors Association, the San Diego Apartment House Owners and Managers Association, and the San Diego Realty Board. As a result of the opposition, the plan was sent back to the City Housing Committee. But the Housing Committee was divided, with two members in favor of a housing authority. Consequently, the city council disbanded the divided housing committee in favor of a new "low cost housing investigating committee." The committee was manned by: the Realty Board President, a realtor, a banker, and a businessman. There was no labor nor tenant representation on the committee, prompting the AFL newspaper, San Diego Labor Leader to call it the "landlord committee."

In the Fall of 1940, aircraft industry workers were migrating to San Diego at a rate of 1,500 per week. San Diego's population had increased by over 100,000 people, an increase of 50% in just two years. The military was building Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway as military access roads to connect local bases, avoiding the major traffic congestion civilians would face.  But existing housing was already filled to capacity. As a result, new San Diegans adjusted. San Diego made minor attempts to alleviate the shortage, by suspending zoning requirements and lowering building standards. Mission Valley, at the time a boundary on northern expansion in San Diego because of it's deep, rigid canyons, was filled to capacity with trailers donated by the Farm Security Administration. But San Diego's social and business elite never wavered in their resistance to federal housing that could compromise their property values.

In July, 1940, the National Executive Committee of Housing Authorities reported, "we are already in a situation as desperate... disastrous delays occurred because war industries couldn't get and hold workers for whom no housing was available." Finally, once it had became clear that the housing shortage was negatively affecting production at critical defense manufacturing plants like Consolidated, the federal Government stepped in. In September, 1940, Congress appropriated an additional $100 million for war and navy housing. As a result, 1000 units of Navy Housing were built.

On October 14, 1940, the Lanham Defense Housing Act was passed. Pursuant to the Act, the federal government pre-empted the city council and approved the construction of 3000 units of public housing on a plateau northwest of mission valley. The project was entitled the Linda Vista or Kearney Mesa Defense Housing Project. Credit for the project was properly thrust upon Rueben H. Fleet. Time Magazine said, "By shrewd purposeful tactlessness, he (Fleet) spurred the government into the San Diego housing problem." Although Consolidated received no assurances that it's employees would receive any guaranteed percentage of the units, it was clear that Fleet believed his employees would have first priority. In fact, in a government document written during construction, the project was entitled the "Consolidated Aircraft Corporation Kearney Mesa Project."

Unfortunately, San Diego's resistance to federal housing lead to their exclusion during construction. The project was located without regard to municipal resources. Because of the project's size, the largest in history, federal site selection agents had difficulty finding a location and ultimately settled on Kearney Mesa. Kearney Mesa was bordered on three sides by jagged canyon walls, creating obstacles for construction workers and municipal officers expected to serve the area. The failure of the federal and San Diego agents to work together on the Linda Vista project lead to many complications. The main axis of the project was Linda Vista Road, a two-mile north south road from which all of Linda Vista was accessed.

Linda Vista Federal 
Housing Project

    When it opened in 1941, the sole route to and from Linda Vista was a 
    narrow two-lane road too steep for buses to trek. Additionally, because 
    Linda Vista was across Mission Valley, the traditional border to northern
    expansion in San Diego, it was difficult to provide fire and police 
    protection. Services such as trash collection, street sweeping, and public 
    transportation proved problematic. In fact, when Linda Vista opened,
    it's water service was initially supplied by a single 10 inch main which 
    soon proved inadequate to meet the demands of 3001 units. (Later, 
    Linda Vista was expanded to include 1845 demountable units between 
    1941 and 1943.)

Linda Vista was built so quickly that by the time it was occupied there were still no schools or shopping facilities nearby until a Safeway opened in February, 1943, where customers often spent more than an hour in one of the store's five checkout lines. Traffic problems were so severe on Linda Vista Road that a Consolidated manager reported that his employess sometimes spent three to four hours per day commuting 5 miles between Linda Vista and Consolidated's plant. What's more, Linda Vista's schools were so overcrowded that over 100 much needed homes had to be used as classrooms.

San Diegans faced many obstacles and restraints during World War II.  Ortiz remembers the rationing of sugar and gas.  He believed the sugar shortage was a government fiction aimed at producing an unofficial census.  But gasoline was a far more serious business; and San Diegans were divided into three groups.  Persons in the "A" group were limited to 4 gallons of gasoline per week.  Those lucky enough to be classified as critical to the war effort were given a classification of "C", which meant they could buy unlimited amounts.  Ortiz was in the "A" group, until he began taking his music students to perform at military installations in San Diego, when he was upgraded to a "C".

The housing shortage made it extremely difficult for women especially. Because many women followed their husbands to San Diego to say good-bye before they deployed for war, San Diego became known as the "Port of Navy Wives." Some native San Diegans did little to comfort them. As Collier's Magazine stated, "San Diego wishes heartily that they'd all go back where they came from . . . they sleep everywhere." Homeless because of the shortage, these women were considered a drain on municipal resources better spent on defense workers. They slept in hotel lobbies, parks, anywhere they could find shelter. Those women who were lucky enough to have a roof over their head were expected to make much out of little.

The San Diego Union Tribune defined the role of women by saying, " . . . (a woman's) main job right now is seeing to the needs of her husband and growing children, putting them first." Women were expected to "keep up family morale by keeping up home and family standards." Newspapers glorified women who felt it their obligation to be "freshly perfumed" for the benefit of our fighting man's morale. Even though the city government encouraged residents to rent any available bedrooms, and myriad homeowners converted garages into apartments, the women homemakers of San Diego were ill-equipped to do what the Union Tribune tasked them to do.

The government did provide what it could in the way of housing. 650 families from 30 different states lived in temporary trailers built by the government. Communities bonded together as woman shared duties to alleviate the combined burden of childcare and household chores. Rationing was especially difficult upon women because they were charged with work for which modern tools were unavailable because of the war effort. A three-year hiatus on the production of household appliances like washing machines made matters worse.

Mary Jane Babcock, a Navy wife whose husband deployed from San Diego, stated, "I had a scrub board and baby diapers and no disposable diapers. I had a big kettle and boiled them in borax." But these difficulties became a great enabler for women like Babcock. Overcoming such difficult conditions as a single parent, Babcock said the experience gave her independence. She said, "it made me very, very self-confident…it made me almost cocky about being able to tackle most everything that comes along."

VJ Day in Downtown 
San Diego


  Ultimately, the World War II boom felt in San Diego left an indelible mark upon it's social
  landscape and topography. The construction of Linda Vista tore down a traditional border to 
  northern expansion. As the War came to a close in 1945, San Diego's population had 
  ballooned from just over 200,000 to almost 400,000 and was still growing rapidly. San Diego's 
  racial balance had also begun to shift, with the number of blacks doubling to 4.5%, and Hispanics
 up from 3% to 4.5%.  Perhaps most importantly, the vast efforts of San Diegans in the war effort 
  empowered many, especially women, armed with the independence and confidence that any 
  obstacle could be overcome.

Ultimately, the World War II boom felt in San Diego left an indelible mark upon it's social landscape and topography. The construction of Linda Vista tore down a traditional border to northern expansion. As the War came to a close in 1945, San Diego's population had ballooned from just over 200,000 to almost 400,000 and was still growing rapidly. San Diego's racial balance had also begun to shift, with the number of blacks doubling to 4.5%, and Hispanics up from 3% to 4.5%.  Perhaps most importantly, the vast efforts of San Diegans in the war effort empowered many, especially women, armed with the independence and confidence that any obstacle could be overcome.

Related Links:

 Consolidated Aircraft Corporation (Many photos...may take awhile to load)
 PBY Catalina Cutaway Project
 San Diego World War II Photos